A small farmers market materializes each Thursday in Serendipity's parking lot, an amenity some restaurateurs might envy simply for photo opportunities of the chef scouring ingredients from produce bins.
But it's the public library next door that seems like the more significant neighbor for this ambitious, eclectic and at times eccentric restaurant from chef Chris DeBarr. His dishes often have narratives, they sometimes require a little reference work and, even when they're mysteries, they're always novel.
DeBarr's style is familiar to many New Orleans foodies with a taste for the exotic and a tolerance for unconventional dining settings. He led them on boozy culinary expeditions at the Uptown bar The Delachaise and later at the Green Goddess, the shoebox-size French Quarter restaurant now operated by his former business partner Paul Artigues. Serendipity is a casual place, but it feels grand compared with these previous spots. There's an attractive bar with an elaborate drinks menu, a corral of sofas, an endearing maitre d' and tables dressed with linens across a roomy, renovated industrial space.
Some of DeBarr's best and longest-lived dishes return on the Serendipity menu. Shrimp "wearing a grass skirt" is a dish of buttery barbecue shrimp sweetened with fruit and wrapped in shredded phyllo (the skirt). His truffled goat cheese "ravioli" are fashioned from slices of golden beets instead of pasta; and the silver dollar johnnycakes carry knuckles of crabmeat and a crown of spicy caviar.
This global foodie romp continues with pork-stuffed balls of mochi, chewy Japanese rice cakes; a beer, mustard and sausage soup tasting of an English shire; and a beautiful salad of grilled grapefruit, duck sausage, greens and white beans that approximates a light, 21st-century cassoulet. A tribute to Hubig's pie, lately with sweet potato and chevre filling, always tops the dessert list, and the gently priced wine selection is as diverse as the menu.
Dishes are generally small (it's a good idea to order three per person), and only a few are fully realized entrees, like the steak or Hawaiian-style barbecued pork. In some cases, the chef's enthusiasm for a concept runs away with the plate. "Lafcadio's Creole curried lamb baklava" tasted more like dessert than a main course, with a sweet-spicy mince of meat, walnuts, honey and saffron between tawny pastry sheets. And while every part of the Greek "fish taco" was good — mahi kebabs, a latke underneath, a super-salty dollop of roe and aioli — they didn't combine well, much less deliver any notion of a taco.
This menu is in constant flux (in an interview, DeBarr described snail and pork fat profiteroles he is adding to the menu) but it's always unusual and in its own way it seems quite timely. Whether it's a surge in the city's creative energy or a more prosaic change in demographics, New Orleans dining has an adventurous side now. This is one of the hubs that taps into that spirit.